Before 1800, the English word “loneliness” did not exist. People lived in small communities, they tended to believe in God (which meant they were never really alone, even when they were physically isolated), and there was a philosophical concept of the community as a source of common good. There was no need for a language of loneliness.
Of course, solitude existed, and solitude (when not chosen) could be damaging, just as loneliness is today. But the modern, existential angst of feeling alone couldn’t exist, because the modern “individual” didn’t emerge until the 19th century, with industrialisation in the west and the creation of philosophical and political systems focusing on individualism. Scientific medicine separated mind and body, identifying the brain as the organ of both cognition and mind. Pathological emotions were defined as “mental” problems. Today, the mental health organisation Mind links loneliness to other mental disorders, including depression and anxiety. It recommends talking therapies that focus on mental health, but overlooks much of the physical dimension of loneliness.
And loneliness is physical. For more than 2,000 years before the development of scientific medicine, physicians had a more holistic approach to mental and physical health. What was eaten and drunk, how one moved, how little (and where) one slept, what the air was like, all influenced a person’s emotions. The 18th-century Scottish physician William Cullen recommended horse-riding to invigorate the fibres of the body and its “spirits”. He advised one Mrs Rae in 1777 to invest in seeing friends, avoiding excessive solitude, and giving the mind “as much attention as [the] body” for optimum health.